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For Deborah Snyder, shepherding Zack Snyder’s Justice League to the screen took all of the skills she’s honed over a career that began in commercials and has seen her produce films such as Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Wonder Woman (2017) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).
She and her husband, Zack Snyder, had to convince WarnerMedia it was worth investing millions to properly complete the project. Then they had to figure out how to make it happen under a compressed timetable in the age of COVID-19. Despite the long odds, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has garnered the best reviews of Zack Snyder’s directing career, with the four-hour cut sporting a 77 percent on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Deborah and Zack Snyder left Justice League in May 2017 following the death of their daughter, Autumn, to attend to their family. Months later, filmmaker Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League debuted to a muted box office and poor critical response. All the while, the Snyders kept a black-and-white cut they could show friends or family, though they didn’t expect it to become more than that.
“There were so many unfinished effects, and it was the only way to smooth it out and make it watchable,” recalls Deborah Snyder.
But fans kept hope alive. They called for the Snyder Cut to be released, with that fan campaign reaching a crescendo on Nov. 17, 2019, the second anniversary of the ill-fated theatrical version, with stars such as Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher asking for its release on social media. The hashtag #ReleasetheSnyderCut climbed to new heights that day, too.
The next morning, the Snyders received the call asking if they’d like to release the Snyder Cut on HBO Max. The initial offer was to put the cut, as it was, on the streaming service, without investing the money to complete the vision. So the Snyders got to work, and with the help of CAA, prepared a presentation showcasing the reach #TheSnyderCut had on social media.
“We compared that to the top shows on Netflix, so we could then make the comparison of what the power of this fanbase was and how that translated into subscribers for HBO Max,” says Deborah Snyder. “When they were like, ‘Well, we don’t want to spend the money on this,’ and then you are like ‘OK, but, you do see there’s an upside?'”
After getting WarnerMedia’s blessing to spend some serious money, the duo had to race to deliver the cut of the film while dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 and completing work on Army of the Dead, their upcoming zombie heist movie for Netflix. The duo also assembled A-list stars, including Affleck, Jared Leto and Ezra Miller, for an additional scene, though the three actors were never on set together.
“Ezra was shooting Fantastic Beasts, so Zack directed him over Zoom. His crew was gracious enough to shoot him, and Zack piped in over Zoom. Ben and Jared were not available on the same days, so they were shot separately,” says Deborah Snyder. “It was only three days. And we probably could have shot it faster, but with all the COVID-19 protocols it just takes a little bit longer to get things done. And also to get up and running with everybody. But it was so much fun.”
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Snyder talks about restoring Cyborg’s storyline, the challenges of filming during the coronavirus pandemic, and the charitable message fans have adopted surrounding the film.
What were you feeling when you got the call on Nov. 18, 2019, that made this real?
I think we almost fell off our seats. Never in our wildest dreams did we think [it would happen]. We get this call, and at the time they were like, “We don’t really have any money to finish it.” “Well…we can’t really put it out. It’s so unfinished.” The music wasn’t done. There were a lot of reasons why we wouldn’t want that to go out in the shape it was. Then our job was, “If we are going to ask them for something, first of all, what is that? And how do you figure out budgeting that?”
Our visual effects supervisor and producers were on another movie. After they were done working, and on the weekends, they would come over and break down the movie and talk to the visual effects editors and see if it was even possible. Because we were in COVID, a lot of the work they had got put on hold. There was availability. When we started talking to the studio about it, COVID hit right in the middle of our conversation. They were like, “Oh, that’s that.” And I was like, “No! the opposite.” We can do this remotely and all these artists, we can keep them employed for a time.
Then, to finish 2,650 visual effects shots, took some money. So we had to also convince them that it was worth it. CAA helped us put together some analytics of what our social reach was throughout the #SnyderCut campaign. We compared that to the top shows on Netflix, so we could then make the comparison of what the power of this fanbase was and how that translated into subscribers for HBO Max. Looking at it that way, gave it a why. When they were like, “Well, we don’t want to spend the money on this” and then you are like “OK, but, you do see there’s an upside.”
Then on May 20th, Zack announces it’s happening. What came next?
Then it was like, “We’ve got to pull this off.” Originally we wanted a year. We just did a big visual effects movie [Army of the Dead] that had 1,100 visual effects shots and we had the course of a year-and-a-half to work on that. Here we had to deliver a brand new score, four-hours worth, and over 2,600 visual effects shots in six, seven months’ time. It was an enormous undertaking.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League was announced months before Warners said it would put its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max. So for a long time, this was the big play for HBO Max. Was hitting a March release date a mandate?
There was a mandate. They needed it by March. That means we are delivering the bulk of our visual effects shots by Christmas and we are starting to mix in November. Which means all that music has to be done and scored. It’s not like Tom (Holkenborg) had seven months to do the score. He had two to three months. That’s a lot of new music that was required. It was so much fun and I think for everybody it was such a cathartic experience. Everyone was so happy to be on the journey. So much of the visual effects and the look of the film and even some of the character designs were changed from the original version. They were so happy to able to go back to their original intent.
Given your family’s personal journey with this film, as well as how it has raised money for suicide prevention in honor of your daughter, Autumn, did you sense there was extra goodwill coming from people working on this?
The willingness for people to go the extra mile on this one was just amazing. The fans in particular, were getting this [cut], but also doing so much in the name of charity. We’ve tried to continue with that. We have a bunch of activations and we are going to do an IMAX screening for charity. [Before COVID], our original plan was a lot broader and I think everybody has embraced the fact that we’re going to continue doing work for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. It was a difficult decision to go public with our story. It’s very personal and it’s very upsetting. It’s hard to talk about, but I think in particular, because of people feeling alone or embarrassed or still not wanting to talk about it, we felt we had an opportunity to actually bring this into the light, and that was something that was really important. It’s been amazing to see a fan community just take that and run with it on our behalf.
Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and his father, Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton), are the heart of this movie. Was seeing that storyline restored all the more meaningful given what Ray Fisher went through after you and Zack left the film?
Cyborg was always the heart of the movie, and I think being able to tell the full arc of these characters, especially for Cyborg, but also for everyone one of them, you get a little more depth, a little bit more nuance with each of them. [Editor’s note: The following few sentences contain a minor spoiler for Justice League].
Joe’s speech on the tape recorder to his son is the moment, when I first saw it, even way back when we did it, that made me cry. … I think had we not left the movie, especially given it’s no secret the studio wanted things lighter and funnier … I don’t think we would have gotten to see the movie the way we have it now. That’s what’s so amazing about this streaming platform. People are used to binging and seeing that character development play out, whereas in a theater if you were watching this movie you’d be like, “OK, when does the team get together already?” For me, the struggles of these characters, starting from Man of Steel, has really been the hero’s journey. People have been patient in getting there, but we see them all kind of go through their struggles, feel out of who they are and then become that hero at the end and become the Justice League. Ray in particular, we saw the least of [in the theatrical cut], so to me, it’s the most fulfilling because it was always our intention for him to be the backbone of this film. But I’d also say I get a lot more depth and I feel like Flash (Miller) really has his moment. That’s what I love, too. At the end of the film, in the final battle, everyone has their part.
How did your new scene with Jared Leto’s Joker come about? Were you able to get everyone you wanted? It must have been tough to get all these major stars together in the age of COVID.
Major stars who weren’t all together for this shoot. Ezra was shooting Fantastic Beasts, so Zack directed him over Zoom. His crew was gracious enough to shoot him, and Zack piped in over Zoom. Ben and Jared (Leto) were not available on the same days, so they were shot separately. Ben was shot with the rest of the group (including Fisher, Amber Heard and Joe Manganiello). We planned that in COVID around everybody’s schedule, but with the impending deadline. Those visual effects were the last things that we got done. It was only three days. And we probably could have shot it faster but with all the COVID protocols it just takes a little bit longer to get things done. And also to get up and running with everybody. But it was so much fun. The way it came about, I think for Zack the ultimate was always to have a scene with Batman and Joker. I think he wanted to do one thing that was just fresh. Because a lot of people are like, “Oh, you probably did a lot of additional photography.” And actually no, everything else we had. We had all this amazing photography that really completed everybody’s arcs and completed the story. It was this one thing and then we shot some pickups for another scene at the same time, but that was it.
Has completing Justice League and Army of the Dead made you want to make you multitask more, or do you welcome going back to doing one movie at a time?
It’s an uptown problem when to have the opportunity to be able to complete Zack’s vision. And we have just had a blast working on Army of the Dead with Netflix. It’s been so much fun. Zack really enjoyed going back to his roots, but to do something that’s different. We are genre filmmakers. So to mash up two genres— a heist movie and a zombie movie, what better place to do it in than Vegas? It’s pretty fun, without giving away, to take these zombies after Zack did Dawn (of the Dead) and have them evolve. And I won’t say how, because it’s fun to discover it, but it was really fun for us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Zack Snyder’s Justice League hits HBO Max on Thursday.
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Jon M. Chu